Bite-size apple cider snickerdoodles

I’m done with sticky, sweaty summer days. Done. It’s already gone back to being dark when I wake up in the morning for work, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s fall. No matter what the thermometer says.

I can’t wait to make hearty soups and pumpkiny things and apple desserts and various of eats and drinks infused with cinnamon and nutmeg and all the other spices that make you think of sweater weather.

So, you know, why not start now? I decided I’m going to will autumn into being. With some cookies.

apple cider snickerdoodlesI went to a wedding yesterday that was inspired by the couple’s tradition of making an apple crisp together every fall. I mention this for two reasons. 1) This put me in the mood to make an apple dessert of my own. 2) I really want to show somebody, anybody, everybody the awesome present my partner and I made for them.

apple crisp aleApple Crisp Ale, brewed by the mister, bottled by the two of us, and labeled and packaged by me using some of their engagement photos.

Okay, okay, back to the program.

I wanted to make an apple dessert. To narrow it down, I needed something not too messy to eat and easy to transport to my board game happy hour this week. I considered apple hand-pies… but all that assembly, whew. Cookies were definitely a better bet. But how to infuse them with apple-y goodness? I’ll be honest, 90% of the reason I decided to use apple cider is because that meant I wouldn’t have to do any of the coring, cutting, and peeling prep necessitated by using whole apples. This really (sorry) appeeled to me.

I poked around to see kind of apple cider cookies were already out there on the old internets. What presented itself over and over again was this strange recipe using an apple cider flavored just-add-water drink mix. I had no idea such a thing existed… and I was certainly not interested in purchasing any. The handful of recipes I found that used actual apple cider called for a few tablespoons, maybe a third of a cup at most. This didn’t seem like it would impart the concentrated apple cider flavor I was looking for.

I reflected on the lovely apple cider caramels I made last year from smitten kitchen. The whole recipe starts with four cups of apple cider boiled into oblivion to create a half cup of sweet and sticky apple syrup. This syrup is then used in place of some of the sugar to bring a natural, apple-y flavor and sweetness to the table. Bingo.

apple cider snickerdoodlesThis makes a looooot of bitty cookies, which is perfect for a party where you want people to get cookies in their mouth instead of crumbs on your floor. If you’d prefer, feel free to roll the dough balls a little bigger and bake longer as needed for fewer, larger cookies.

Bite-Size Apple Cider Snickerdoodles
Adapted from Snickerdoodles by Joy of Baking

Makes approximately 12 dozen mini cookies

4 cups apple cider
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg)
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

In a medium saucepan, boil apple cider uncovered over medium high heat to reduce. This will take 40-60 minutes depending on how high you keep the heat and the size of your pot. Stir occasionally, then more frequently as it starts to boil down. Keep it bubblin’ until it’s reduced to between 1/3 cup and 1/2 cup of thick syrup. Transfer to a heatproof, oiled bowl or measuring cup and let cool in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the brown sugar and cooled apple cider syrup until integrated. Add butter and beat again until fully combined. Add eggs, one at a time, beating between each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Add dry ingredients, then beat again on low speed until the dough comes together. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.

In a shallow bowl mix together the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silpats. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Shape dough into 3/4-inch round balls. Roll each ball in the spiced sugar coating, then place on baking sheet at least 2 inches apart (I fit 20 cookies per half-size baking sheet). Use the bottom of a glass to gently flatten the dough balls.

Bake the cookies for 7 to 8 minutes — until they are firm around the edges but still soft in the middle, and just turning light golden brown. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack until cool.

Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Fig and thyme white cake with whipped honey frosting

My dad’s 50th birthday was on Friday. I emailed him to ask what his favorite cake was.

His helpful response: “I never met a cake I didn’t like.”

Given free reign like that, I decided to do something a little different. Something he’d never order in a restaurant or ask for someone to make him, but that would still knock his socks off.

I also wanted to make something summery because of his late August, dog days of summer birthday. S’mores cake? Eh, I’ve made it in cupcake form before and wanted to try something new. Chocolate-orange? Nah, that seems like more of a cold weather one to me. I thumbed through All Cakes Considered for ideas. I hemmed. I hawed. I pondered.

Eventually I got stuck on my favorite thing about summer: figs. The rest came together pretty quickly after that. A fluffy white cake with a fig jam in the middle. A light, whipped honey meringue buttercream on top. Not too heavy, but certainly tooth-achingly sweet. Good for the kids.

But I wanted to slightly temper the sugar rush for the adults. Something herby. Which of course led to my favorite fig accompaniment, thyme. It’s piney, but not too piney like rosemary sometimes is. It doesn’t overpower the delicate honey flavor in the frosting, but it does effectively counter the sweetness while adding a little flair of its own.

Of course, the best part of this flavor combo is that I can say that I made my dad a fig-tieth birthday cake, on account of him being alive for a long thyme.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry!

I cut plain slices for my niece and nephew, then said to my dad, sister, and brother: “I didn’t think the kids would like this, but if you’d like I can put some fresh thyme over your piece of cake.”

Sister: “What’s thyme?”
Brother: “That sounds really weird. But usually when you try to get me to eat something weird, it’s good, so okay.”
Father: “If you say so.”

I sprinkled a few leaves over each piece of cake. I could tell they didn’t trust me one bit.

fig and thyme white cake with whipped honey frostingThen they tasted it. “I can’t believe that’s… actually really good.” Well gee, thanks for trusting my judgement, folks. But I knew I had a winner when my sister and dad both took tiny slivers for seconds, and chose to add thyme to them completely of their own volition.

My dad knows I post my recipes on the internet. He saw me taking my photos and figured (correctly) that they were for a post. He said, “People aren’t going to think that’s good when they read the recipe. It’s too weird. They’re not going to realize how good it tastes and they won’t make it.”

It’s not that weird. Prove him wrong.

fig and thyme white cake with whipped honey frostingFig and Thyme White Cake with Whipped Honey Frosting
Adapted from Whipped Cream Cake by Melissa Gray in All Cakes Considered and Brown Sugar Meringue Buttercream from Sky High Cakes as posted on Completely Delicious

Serves 10 to 12

1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup whipping cream
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

3 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons water
9.6 ounces (about 19 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into chunks

scant 1/2 cup fig jam, at room temperature
fresh thyme leaves, stripped from woody stalks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter or spray two 8-inch pans, then line with a parchment paper circle. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together cake flour, salt, and baking powder. In a small bowl, beat eggs until thick and pale yellow. Set both aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip cream on medium speed until stiff peaks form. Add beaten eggs and beat again until fully integrated and foamy. Add sugar and extracts and beat again for about 1 minute. Add dry ingredients and beat on low speed until barely combined — there should still be some visible flour. Use a spatula to fold the ingredients the rest of the way to avoid over mixing.

Divide batter evenly among prepared pans, then put in the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, removing when a toothpick comes out clean. If your oven heats unevenly, swap positions of the two layers about 10 minutes into the baking time.

Place on a wire rack until cool enough to handle. Use a knife to loosen the edges of the cake from the pan, then flip out onto the rack. Remove the parchment paper from the bottom and let cool completely.

For the frosting, there’s a little bit of timing involved in making this all work. Start by combining the water, sugar, and honey in a small saucepan. Do not yet put it over the heat.

In the bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form.

Put sugar solution over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it comes to a boil. Once it is boiling, stop stirring and insert a candy thermometer. Book without stirring until it reaches 238 degrees F (soft ball stage).

Turn the mixer with the egg whites back on medium speed. Carefully pour the hot (seriously, really really hot, be careful) sugar mixture in a thin stream into the egg whites. Try not to hit the beater or the side of the bowl.

Once the sugar syrup has been added, raise the speed to medium high and beat until the mixture is down to room temperature (touch the side of the bowl to check). This will take several minutes.

With the mixture still running, add the butter cubes a few tablespoons full at a time. Once all the butter has been added, continue to beat until smooth. The mixture may start to look curdled at one point, especially if your butter was a little too cold or too warm. Just let the mixer keep running and it will work itself out. Once the frosting is smooth, creamy, and light you’re good to go.

Put one cake layer on a serving plate or pedestal. I’m no expert cake decorator by a long-shot, but the best tip I can give for tidier looking cakes is to line the plate with strips of parchment paper tucked under the cake before you frost it. Try this! It really helps your cake look better to not have frosting smeared all over the plate.

Spread the fig jam evenly over the first layer. Then using an offset spatula, spread a small layer of frosting on top of the fig jam. Go almost all the way to the edge. Top with the second cake layer, then frost the top and sides to coat.

Sprinkle fresh thyme over the top of the cake, then serve.

The secret to eggy tofu scramble: Indian black salt

Tofu scramble is one of those dishes that every vegan and most vegetarians have in their back pocket. It’s quick, it’s healthy, it’s infinitely adaptable, it’s suitable for any meal, and it’s damn good eatin’.

But nobody who eats eggs would ever actually say an average tofu scramble actually tastes like egg. It’s a delicious way of preparing tofu. But it doesn’t taste like egg.

That’s not a problem, really. It’s tofu, not egg. But some folks hear the word “scramble” and they get… eggspectations.

I’m sorry.

Anyway, this is where Indian black salt comes in. It’s a mineral salt used frequently in Indian cooking which has a high sulfur content, and thus a distinctly eggy flavor. I picked mine up from a Tea and Spice Exchange that I happened into while on vacation, because I hadn’t been able to find it in my local Whole Foods and hadn’t made it to the Punjab grocery to check there yet. But good places to find black salt in general: Indian grocery stores, health food stores, specialty spice stores, and of course, the internet.

Now, I still wouldn’t say this tastes… eggsactly (*ducks*) like scrambled eggs. But for a vegan who’s really missing eggs? Or someone who has ideas about tofu being gross because it’s “always flavorless”? Black salt is a very nice touch.

As I mentioned, the nice thing about tofu scramble is that it’s infinitely adaptable. I used red onion and baby spinach because I had it, but feel free to substitute with anything languishing in your fridge (or even prepare it plain and top with cheddar Daiya for a childhood throwback).

black salt tofu scramble

Black Salt Tofu Scramble

Serves 2-4

4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
5 ounces baby spinach
1 small red onion, thinly sliced in half moons
1 14-ounce package firm tofu
1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons Indian black salt
1/2 teaspoon nutritional yeast
heaping 1/8 teaspoon tumeric
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

While preparing the rest of your ingredients, press tofu to remove some excess water. I have this tofu press and I compress the tofu about halfway and let it sit for 15 minutes.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-low heat, then add 2 teaspoons olive oil. Warm until oil is shimmery and easily coats pan, then add red onion. Saute until slightly softened, about 5 minutes. Add baby spinach, toss to coat, and cover. Let wilt for 3-4 minutes, stirring once. Transfer mixture from skillet to a colander and squeeze extra liquid out, then set aside.

Again heat skillet over medium-low and add 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Warm oil, then roughly crumble pressed tofu (I just use my hands) into the skillet. Sprinkle with black salt, nutritional yeast, turmeric, and garlic powder and stir to combine. Start with a teaspoon of black salt — you can add more to taste after you add the veggies.

Continue to heat and stir until tofu is warmed through and broken up to your desired texture. Add reserved veggies and stir to combine. Taste, and if desired, add additional black salt for more saltiness (obviously) as well as more eggy flavor. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Heat again until everything is warmed through and serve immediately.

The obsession continues with s’mores cupcakes

s'mores cupcakes

My ongoing obsession with s’mores-flavored-things-that-aren’t-s’mores continues with these delightful cupcakes. I used this as an excuse to buy a culinary blowtorch, which was very fun to use. (Tip: that particular torch is used with butane canisters that are usually used with camping stoves, which can be found cheaply at hardware stores or, apparently, Asian markets.)

Toasting the marshmallow frosting is a really nice aesthetic touch, but I didn’t notice a whole lot of difference as far as the taste, so you’d be fine without if you’re not an impulse buyer like I am. If you decide to go for it, be careful when you’re toasting them — it’s easy to set those cupcake liners on fire. But I’m definitely not speaking from experience, no way, no how. I definitely did not ever-so-slightly singe the edges of any of those liners.

s'mores cupcakes

The plain cupcakes can be made ahead of time and stored in airtight containers overnight, and probably a little longer in the fridge. The ganache can also be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge.

However, from what I’ve read that this frosting doesn’t take well to being stored. It makes far more than is needed for these cupcakes, so I’ve had it in my fridge. I’ve been eating it on my failed attempt at the All the Colors of the Rainbow (Chip) Cake, and it seems to have stood up just fine. You can take your chances if you want, but it is fairly quick to whip up so you might want to do it when you need it.

A funny thing about this marshmallow frosting… it doesn’t actually contain any marshmallows, or even marshmallow fluff. My friend Emily loves the smell of a freshly opened container of marshmallow fluff (yeah, I know…), and she kept asking if she could come over and sniff when I was made this frosting. Smelling freshly cracked egg whites just isn’t the same, I suppose. Anyway, the lack of marshmallows means this recipe is vegetarian without having to drop mad dough on those yummy-but-pricey vegan ‘mallows.

S’mores Cupcakes
Chopped and screwed from Graham Cracker Cake from All Cakes Considered by Melissa Gray and Fluffy White Icing-Marshmallow Frosting by Cake Duchess

Makes 24 cupcakes

25 graham crackers
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 stick butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk, room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

8 ounces chocolate chips (semi-sweet or milk according to preference)
1 cup heavy cream

1 cup sugar
4 egg whites, room temperature
1/3 cup of water
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Position your rack in the lower third of your oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line two muffin pans with cupcake liners.

Turn your graham crackers into crumbs in your food processor. Add coconut and pulverize until everything is pulverized and integrated.

In the bowl of your stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-high speed until smooth. Add sugar gradually and beat until fully blended, scraping down the sides as needed.

Add two of the egg yolks, beat for one minute, add the other two, then beat for an additional minute. Scrape the sides of the bowl, add the vanilla, then beat for one minute more.

Reduce the speed to low, and add graham cracker crumbs and milk in three batches, stirring to combine between each addition — about 1 heaping cup of crumbs and 1/3 cup of milk for each batch. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then stir again briefly to make sure the batter is fully blended.

If you only have one bowl for your stand mixer, transfer this batter to a large bowl and wash and dry your mixing bowl. If you have an extra, well bully for you.

Add egg whites to clean mixing bowl and attach your whisk attachment to the mixer. Beat on medium speed until frothy, then add cream of tartar. Increase speed to medium high and beat until the egg whites have firm peaks.

Add about a quarter of the egg whites to your bowl of graham batter, and fold in gently until combined. Then fold in the remaining egg whites.

Divide batter evenly among your 24 cupcake liners, and toss them in the oven. If your oven is not big enough to put them side by side, you’ll have to be extra careful about swapping them halfway through your cooking time.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Let cool in pans for ten minutes, then remove from pans and cool fully on a wire rack.

Then, ganache darnit (sorry), get that chocolate and cream out! Put the chocolate chips into a heatproof bowl. Add cream to a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom, until it just starts to boil. You’ll just have the tiniest bubbles starting to form at the edges. Pour your hot cream over the chocolate chips and let sit for 2-3 minutes. Stir carefully until melted chocolate combines with the cream to create a dreamy creamy chocolate sauce. Cover and let chill in the fridge until it firms up to a consistency like soft fudge.

While your ganache is chilling, cut holes into the top of your cooled cupcakes — a bit bigger than an inch in diameter, and until you’re about a half inch away from the bottom of the cupcake. I use a small paring knife.

Once your ganache is chilled, add it to a piping bag with a large round tip (or a zip top bag and snip the corner off until you have a large tip). Put the tip all the way to the bottom of the hole in each cupcake. Squeeze and slowly raise to fill the hole completely with ganache. I like to fill them until each cupcake starts to bulge a little bit. It’s fine if your ganache is not completely level with the top of the cupcake.

Once you’ve filled all the cupcakes, it’s frosting time!

Put your egg whites in the bowl of the stand mixer with the whisk attachment. Stir on medium low speed until your whites become frothy and thick and form soft peaks.

While your egg whites are whipping, combine sugar, water, and cream of tartar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat without stirring. Boil until the temperature on a candy thermometer reads 245 degrees — you’ll have a thick clear syrup that is covered with bubbles. Do not let it turn brown! Remove from heat.

Try to time your egg whites so they are are ready when the sugar comes off. Turn the mixer to high speed, set a timer for 7 minutes, then very carefully pour the sugar syrup into the mixer in a very thin stream. Once you’ve poured all of the sugar syrup in, sit back and don’t touch!

In the last minute of stirring, add the vanilla.

Now you have a fluffy white frosting. Taste it. Doesn’t it taste just like marshmallows??

Add to a piping bag with a large round tip. Be gentle with it so you don’t deflate it. Starting in the middle of each cupcake, right on top of the ganache, squeeze a blob of frosting out that is about the size of a mini marshmallow (maybe a big mini marshmallow…). Now squeeze out little matching blobs all around the one in the middle until you’ve covered the top of the cupcake.

Now for the fun part! With a small flame, gently torch the top of each cupcake until the frosting is browned to your liking. For some people this means golden brown, but for those of you who are in the “char it to hell” camp, go nuts.

If you’re making these to bring somewhere but still want to taste them before you go, add some of those cake cores to a bowl. Heat up the leftover ganache for 15 seconds or so in the microwave, and drizzle over the cake. Then glop a big spoonful of frosting on top. Yum. You might want to eat it with a fork, though.